On a sunny summer day in early July, 2013 NASA’s Aqua satellite caught a clear-sky glimpse of the green lands of northwestern Russia extending far above the Arctic Circle. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) flying aboard captured this true-color image on July 2 at 09:35 UTC (1:35 p.m. Moscow Standard Time).
The center of the image lies a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, and the dark green coloration of this region indicates boreal forest (taiga). In the forests, particularly near rivers, red hotspots accompanied by plumes of smoke appear, and indicate actively burning fires. Many of the fires in such remote wilderness are started by humans, either as campfires or accidental fires as people pass, or deliberately used to open land for agriculture. However, fires are also often ignited by lightning strike.
To the north the boreal forest gives way to treeless land in which the greens appear light, and in places are tinged with yellow or tan. This is the Arctic tundra, a cold, harsh environment where the short growing season (50 – 60 days) limits plant life to those vigorous species that can respond to lengthening, sunny days with an intense burst of growth. Tundra is covered by a thick layer of snow most of the year, and is underlain by permafrost. In the long summer days, the snow melts and leaves freshwater bogs and shallow lakes. As the climate has warmed, the permafrost has responded by melting, increasing the wetness of the landscape.
Along the northern shoreline, most of land belongs to Nenets Autonomous Okrug, from the pointed Kanin Peninsula in the west to Vaygach Island in the far northeast corner of the image, where swirls of sea ice remain in the Arctic Ocean. This is the homeland of the indigenous Nenets people, who make their living as nomadic reindeer herders. Their livelihood depends on the ability to move reindeer from southerly winter feeding grounds in the boreal regions, where the reindeer feed on lichen and other shrubby plants, to the northerly tundra each year – a journey of up to 1,000 km (over 600 mi). This same area has proven to contain a huge reservoir of natural gas – a discovery which has brought a strong influx of trains, roads and resource extraction equipment into the traditional migration lands of the reindeer, the lives of the Nenets people, and into the fragile tundra ecosystem. This is a land in the midst of rapid change.